The Way, Way Back
★★★★ (out of 5 stars)
Overwhelmed with action blockbusters? Longing to go back to the days of CGI-free dramedies? Well, why not go Way, Way Back and enjoy one of this season’s sweetest, most honest and funny flicks, courtesy of first-time directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.
The incomparable Toni Collette as Pam and the unpredictable Steve Carrell as Trent have been dating for about a year. To take their relationship to the next level and to form greater bonds with each other’s children from previous marriages, they head to an Atlantic Ocean beach town for a summer vacation. In the grand tradition of the coming-of-age film, Pam’s 14-year-old son, Duncan (Liam James), discovers a bit about himself, the opposite sex, friendship and his mom’s flawed relationship with Trent.
The Way, Way Back is packed with rich and offbeat performances, more than any other film this summer. The slightly uneven script by Faxon and Rash can’t quite keep them all in balance, but there are some real gems here. Collette steals the drama prize, but Sam Rockwell, as Owen, upstages everyone.
As the manager of the local Water Wizz water park, where “what happens in the tube stays in the tube,” Owen both befriends Duncan and gives him his first summer job. In fact, it’s Rockwell, not Carrell, who is given the heavy comedic lifting, and he handles it superbly, with Carrell relegated to an effective but not particularly memorable dramatic turn.
As if that weren’t enough, we get Allison Janney’s quirky, constantly inebriated next-door neighbor, Maya Rudolph’s endearing would-be girlfriend of Owen, and even Faxon and Rash as scene-stealing employees of Water Wizz. At times, it seems as if the young James, in the lead role, is the only dull element, which is a shame since every other facet – even the scenes that don’t quite work – are brimming with life. But he has enough sweetness and truth about him to pull the part off. After all, haven’t we all been the boring, awkward teenager struggling to fit in?
Yet it’s not just Duncan who is struggling – every character seems to be at a crossroads. As Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), Duncan’s crush, says, the beach resort is just as eye-opening for parents as for kids, a sort of “spring break for adults.” With a more heavy-handed script, that could have led to a contrived construction, but there’s just enough chemistry here to make things cook, despite an overblown ending.
For all its successes, the film does feel like a directorial debut. Faxon and Rash, at least at this point in their careers, are better writers and actors than directors. They co-wrote The Descendants, which was directed by the more-experienced Alexander Payne, and the two films have similarities in tone and plot. However, they got writing help from Payne on that one, so this is the first cinematic journey that the two are taking alone. And though the trip is a bit bumpy – for us as well as Duncan and his mom – it’s a trip worth taking.